28 April 2018

Purported Problems with Chess960

That title is taken from a recent article by Frederic Friedel of Chessbase: The problem with Chess960 (chessbase.com; February 2018). Let's cut to the chase. The problem with chess960 is that there is no problem with chess960. Chessbase has a problem with chess960 in that it eliminates the need for their flagship product. I read Friedel's remarks with the same understanding that I would read the remarks of any corporate CEO faced with an existential threat. Let's look at his main points.

'The game has some fairly complex castling rules.' • This is a bullet straight out of Top 10 Myths About Chess960 (May 2012). Friedel points to a Wikipedia article that states the rule in 17 words: 'After castling, the final positions of King and Rook are exactly the same as in standard chess'. Wikipedia then goes on to repeat the same restrictions that are found in the rules of traditional chess: King and Rook must not have moved etc. etc. What's so complicated about that?

'Slowly the game gained popularity, though it did not take off the way its devotees hoped.' • The game is doing fine, thanks very much. There are plenty of places to play (How about Chessbase's Playchess.com?) and plenty of people to play it with. There is no money in it, but I'm not convinced that's a problem.

'A chess960 rapid game has a weird position the players [are] still pondering on move four.' • This 'grave disadvantage' (Friedel's phrase) is in fact one of the attractions of chess960. The thinking starts on the first move (not after 15 moves of theory).

'Commenting on a [chess960] game [is like] conducting a guided tour of an art gallery that you are visiting for the first time.' • One of these days I must watch the commentating by GM Yasser Seirawan and IM Anna Rudolf on the recent 2018 Carlsen - Nakamura Match (February 2018). How did they manage to cope?

'The chess960 positions, regarding their winning probabilities, are often asymmetric.' • I don't understand what this means. What are 'asymmetric winning probabilities'? That White often has a small advantage over Black? That the 960 positions offer different winning percentages to the two players? Something else?

'Traditional chess offers continuity [...] That is impossible in chess960. • This is referring to the opening. Traditional chess has three phases: opening, middlegame, and endgame; chess960 has the same three phases. In the chess960 opening, there are undiscovered principles that are awaiting the intrepid explorer. Ditto the chess960 middlegame, which is richer than in traditional chess. The chess960 endgame is the same as traditional chess.

'Some [chess960 start positions] give White substantial advantage, some are simply bizarre, causing players to cringe, and some invite blunders and result in very short games. But many are interesting and exciting.' • All are 'interesting and exciting'. None are cringeworthy. I speak from experience.

'Chess960 tournaments should have two games with swapped colors per encounter.' • Is this necessary? The Mainz events did not use this system. Perhaps it is a psychological crutch for players who lack confidence in the fairness of chess960 or in their ability to tackle its challenges. The Carlsen - Nakamura match used 'swapped colors' and provoked a conversation about unintended consequences. Other solutions are possible, like a change in the scoring system (e.g. as in duplicate bridge).

'The main problem of chess960 is that you start with absolutely no prior information or practice.' • Absolutely none at all? Starting with this sentence, the rest of Friedel's article breaks down into some silly assertions (sorry, Frederic!) and a call to consider Kasparov's Chess960 Proposal (October 2009). I've discussed the idea several times on this blog, for example, It's Not About Short Draws, Garry (February 2014). Short answer: There is nothing to stop any group of players from limiting the number of chess960 positions; likewise, there is nothing to stop the rest of the world from playing all 960 positions. Long answer: Same as the short answer.

Don't misunderstand me. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Friedel's thoughts. Remember the 'corporate CEO faced with an existential threat'? There were other points worth examining. Friedel's relationship with Bobby Fischer was news to me. The article also attracted more than 200 comments, many of them with ideas worth further exploration. Perhaps I'll tackle these in a future post.

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